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‘Putting a nuclear reactor in a potential war zone’

Nuclear technology being considered for Guam

By Dana Williams

At a subarctic Air Force Base in Alaska and at a research facility in Idaho, scientists are developing nuclear technology that could be used to provide power to the military on Guam.

The executive summary of the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services’ 2024 defense bill “directs a briefing on the status of the development of nuclear microreactors and plans to transition such capabilities to the services for production, as well as a briefing on the potential for using modular microreactors to supplement power generation in Guam.”

In the last few years, the military has been studying the potential use of microreactors at remote bases where power generation is either difficult or expensive. The small, sometimes portable reactors can produce up to 20 megawatts of electricity and can operate independent of the power grid. The goal is to provide reliable, safe and clean energy to military installations.

But critics have raised questions about the safety and security of microreactors, and one group on Guam is concerned about the level of military transparency.

“We don’t think people are being given enough information on the nature of these plans,” said Robert Underwood, chairman of the Pacific Center for Island Security, a research group that examines military and strategic activities in the region.

The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act called for testing a microreactor at a military base no later than 2027. Shortly before leaving office in January 2021, President Donald Trump issued an executive order outlining the requirements for military development of a microreactor.

In October of that year, Alaska’s Eielson Air Force Base, located about 110 miles south of the Arctic Circle, was selected as the site of the Air Force’s microreactor pilot program. The project calls for a third-party vendor to build and operate a reactor licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.


The vendor will own the microreactor, and the Department of Defense will purchase the electricity and thermal energy it generates under a 30-year lease agreement. The request for proposals closed earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the military’s Strategic Capabilities Office launched Project Pele, described in a 2020 overview by program manager Jeff Waksman as “a prototype demonstration of an inherently safe mobile nuclear reactor.”

Unlike the fixed-location Eielson microreactor, the Project Pele reactor will be portable. It will generate up to 5 megawatts of electricity and can be moved by truck, rail or plane to forward operating bases. It will be able to operate for at least three years at full power without refueling.

In a February interview published on the Energy Intelligence website, Waksman explained that the reactor could be moved within seven days in an emergency, but that would reduce efficiency, and generally the reactors would stay put for months at a time.

“The sort of systems that operate in the 1 MW-5 MW range are things like mobile hospitals and over-the-horizon radar systems and things like that tend to be relatively static,” he told Energy Intelligence. “They can move, but they don't tend to move very often. So we don't anticipate that the system is going to be moving on a weekly basis. It's just less efficient that way.”

A 2018 Army report on the use of mobile nuclear power plants notes that the systems can supply “constant and uninterrupted power to energy-intensive air and missile defense systems.”

The report also lists Guam among a dozen possible sites where a mobile microreactor could be deployed. The military is planning to build a 360-degree missile defense system to protect the island against a potential attack from China or North Korea.

In a doctoral dissertation prepared for Pardee Rand Graduate School, Kyle D. Haak examined possible microreactor sites by looking at power costs and restrictions on nuclear construction.

“Alaska and Guam are the only states without restrictions on new nuclear construction and are places where DoD locations have significantly higher costs of electricity,” he noted. However, he also pointed out that state-level restrictions are subject to change through legislation or ballot initiatives.

Alan J. Kuperman, an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, said the use of microreactors for defense purposes is tremendously expensive and potentially dangerous.

As the coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the university, he authored a report criticizing the 2018 Army proposal.

Alan Kuperman

In an interview with Pacific Island Times, Kuperman said any plan to place microreactors at missile defense sites on Guam is “a really idiotic idea.”

“It’s a safety risk, putting a nuclear reactor in a potential war zone,” Kuperman said. “Everyone knows Guam is a potential war zone in case of a dust-up with China.”

Although the Pele Program requires mobile microreactors to be “inherently safe,” automatically shutting down and avoiding radiation release in the event of an accident or attack, Kuperman said that isn’t always possible.

Overheating is a big danger with a reactor, and if a missile strikes close to the reactor, “there’s a possibility of debris clogging it up and it gets hotter.” Similarly, steps taken to protect the microreactor – placing it underground or enclosing it in a building – could also inhibit airflow and passive cooling.

“The other possibility is that a missile hits the reactor and disperses the fuel,” he said. That would scatter chunks of highly radioactive fuel, but “you wouldn’t know it was there, because it doesn’t put out light or smoke.”

“So, there are at least two scenarios in which an attack on an inherently safe reactor doesn’t feel very safe,” he said. “The good news, I guess, is what the (National Defense Authorization Act) in the Senate calls for is a briefing,” he added.

“If this is such a great idea, why don’t you put it in the continental United States?”

James Moylan

Guam Del. James Moylan, who is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he wasn’t aware of any plans to put a microreactor on Guam. “This is the first we are reading of any discussions associated with nuclear reactors to supplement power on Guam,” he said in a statement Monday. “Since this was discovered in the Senate’s version of the NDAA, no discussions or inquiries were made with our office.”

He also explained that hundreds of amendments were adopted in the House version of the defense budget, and like the Senate version, many were requests for studies that “would enable all parties to understand many things from feasibility, costs, and of course necessity.”

Underwood said PCIS was “very concerned” about the Senate’s plan. He said questions remain about the safety of microreactors as well as the rationale for placing one on the island.

He said the people of Guam need more information and greater transparency. “We’re left to our own devices to be scientists, diplomats and defense experts in order to deal with these issues.”

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